THE CAN-CAN: WHAT CAN AND WHAT CAN’T?
By Huy Phát
A popular provocative dance move in the Broadway shows in 1950s has been chosen as the title for this short story “The Can-can” of Vivante about a man having a love affair while his thought was wandering around “somebody doing the can-can”- his wife back home. The can-can therefore does more than just being the title, its repeated recurrence in the story recognizes itself as a noteworthy symbol and also contributes greatly in the interpretation of the story’s theme. The can-can emerges as a compelling symbol. In fact, one doesn’t need to read the story to link the can-can dance movements with eroticism; however, the can-can with all of its sensual potential also plays the role of the chemical binding up or probing up this precarious marriage. The can-can dance move originated in France and became popular in the 19th century. Can-can dancers were usually women with long legs covered in black stockings, kicking playfully and seductively in a bunch of dressing robes. When it was transferred to the Broadway shows and later on in dance-slap clubs, with all the robes “simplified” and shortened up and an excess of erotic and provocative movements (e.g. the bent-down so low that dancers’ bottoms are almost (un)intentionally shown to the audience), can-can has become a symbol of eroticism that is obsessed by men, and therefore, loathed by their wives. The can-can performed in the short story by the wife is no exception. Explicitly, the wife did the dance to please her daughter, but the way she did this, “she held up her skirt and did the can-can, kicking her legs up high in his [the husband] direction.”, was full of implication. She did not want her husband to leave, and conveyed that message implicitly through a sexual dance move. As most men are enchanted by sexuality, the husband got that message. In his perception, these were what he saw: “she had no stockings on, no shoes, and her legs looked very white and smooth, secret, as though he had never touched them or come near them. Her feet, …, seemed to be nodding to him. She held her skirt bunched up, attractively” He was definitely stunned by the scene (or by the fantasy the scene might implicitly suggest). However, when he had to make a decision, “he left the house”; that is also when the can-can played more than a sensual invitation; it became the bonding factor in this troubled marriage. Suddenly, the husband felt burdened by the difficulties in getting to a love affair with another woman, felt pleased if his mistress failed to show up, wished he could come home, and found himself absurdly thinking of his woman back home all the time. In the end, he confessed a half-truth to his mistress, “I was thinking of someone doing the can-can”, but carefully (and wisely) hiding the fact that that person was his wife. Admittedly, the sexual symbol of the can-can dance move does have the revival power on a troubled marriage. The theme of “the Can-can” is obviously about marriage as confinement in which both the husband and wife fail each other expectation and fail to live up to each other’s expectation. Worse still, they cannot run away from such a marriage that easily. In our story, the man was a painter who always had an artistic need of “going out for a drive” to pursuit his beauty (as he did literally). Meanwhile the wife always hoped that he stayed at home instead for “she feel safer with him at home, and he helped look after the children, especially the baby.” Yet, the baby, plus the image of a meek and mild wife “darning children’s clothes”, “cleaning or washing” are lively reminders of the responsibility of a man in the family, something the painter’s nature or the man’s nature cannot endure. Men are chasers, women are holders. “The Can-can” poses a noteworthy question of what a man actually chases and what a woman actually holds. The husband in the story wanted to escape the deadlock of his marriage by engaging in a love affair. However, the sexy can-can dance move suddenly taught him that the affair wasn’t that exciting through and through compared to his wife sometimes. Then it might follows that the sex implied by the symbol can-can may be the target of this chaser. On the other hand, perhaps, this secret desire of the husband has went unnoticed by the wife, for she didn’t dare to take her can-can dancing to the next step, seducing her husband again, renewing their marriage, for instance. This is to show that the woman was unsure of what power she was holding. That is why whereas she hated her husband going out but always showed up a bright “all right” smile and “though jealous she was in silent, subtle ways.” The can-can helped enlighten the couple on what they really need to save their marriage. Then sex might be a life-saver, or might be not, the point is that both parties know what they truly need and what they already have to make it work. To sum up, via the symbol of the can-can dance move, it can be said that marriage is a confinement only when the couple let the boring and burdensome responsibilities eclipse the fact that they are lovers. Personally, I believe that there will be a happy ending for this dramatic story, mostly based on the fact that in the end the husband seemed to know what he has already have - his wife, a woman can do the most attractive can-can to him; also it became clearer to him that even a love affair has its own responsibility which states “do not think of your wife when you are with me”. Then does the wife know that she possessed the ability to save their marriage? I truly hope she does.